Lauren McGough is a world-renowned falconer, known for her deep knowledge of eagles and her ability to train them in the art of hunting as well as for her success as a woman in a male-dominated field.
Falconry is defined as “the taking of world quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor.” Concerns about the decline of the practice, which has been around for more than 4,000 years, prompted the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to add falconry to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity in 2010.
McGough, originally from Oklahoma, has traveled all over the world in pursuit of her passion, according to her biography. She has been to Europe, Mongolia and South Africa, learning different traditions of falconry and studying zoology and social anthropology.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. McGough Fell In Love with Falconry at the Age of 14
She told “60 Minutes” about the moment she discovered falconry and why she convinced her father to fly her to Mongolia at the age of 17:
I read a book on falconry. And it’s like the fire was lit. I just knew I had to do it. And, as I was researching, I went to the library, and I found this old book that had black and white photos of eagle hunters from Mongolia. So, you know, this beautiful shaggy horse and this man with a giant eagle and a fox pelt on his horse. And it just looked like the most incredible thing. And I thought, ‘I have to see it. I have to do it.’
McGough spent two years in the United Kingdom as an exchange student, where she learned the European traditions of eagle falconry and she eventually graduated from the University of Oklahoma with dual degrees in Zoology and International Studies, according to her biography.
In 2009, she returned to Mongolia as a Fulbright Scholar, where she learned the Kazakh eagle culture, was an apprentice to eagle masters and became trained in the art of hunting foxes off horseback; McGough also earned a PhD in the subject of Social Anthropology from Scotland’s University of St Andrews. She has most recently spent two years rehabilitating eagles in South Africa.
2. One of McGough’s Most Famous Rehabilitation Success Stories Is Miles
McGough spent some time training and flying a “problem eagle” that had frustrated many rehabbers and falconers before her — a “prairie dragon” named Miles, according to Amtrak’s magazine, The National.
Miles, according to The National, was poached from his mother, an aerie out of Wyoming, when he was just a hatchling. He grew up as an imprint (a bird which believes it is human), leading to issues that persisted long after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confiscated him from his poacher.
Many rehabbers and falconers tried to train him, but instead of hunting, he “bullied his caretakers into giving him food. (Imagine an unruly toddler with razor blades for fingernails, and you’ll understand why they gave in.)”
Over a spring with McGough, who listened to Miles Davis before each training session to help prepare her to handle the moody bird, she taught the 12-year-old to fly like a wild eagle again. She eventually brought Miles to a North American Falconers Association meet where — despite making no successful kills — he performed as responsibly and disciplined as any eagle, The National reported.
3. McGough Is the Executive Director of Falconry Fund
Over her 17-year experience of being a falconer, McGough has also developed a passion for the science of it and the role birds of prey play in ecosystems. In 2017, she was named as the executive director of the Falconry Fund, according to Audubon. The fund is a nonprofit organization focused on the conservation and preservation of raptors.
McGough told Inside Hook that falconry helps immature raptors survive to adulthood. “With the extremely high mortality rate of immature raptors in the wild (60-90% dependent on the species), spending time with a falconer sees a passager through to maturity, with lots of gained hunting experience,” she said.
McGough said she has spent the last few years working on rehabilitating eagles that are found sick and unable to hunt. She also explained how falconry is a conservation effort for birds of prey:
First, it provides an opportunity for the public to view and interact with birds of prey—and something as simple as seeing a hawk up close on a person’s glove, and hearing a talk about the importance of raptors, can mean the difference between admiring a wild hawk and shooting one.
Second, falconry techniques—that is, the day-to-day management of birds of prey—are all geared towards keeping raptors in perfect feather, building fitness, confidence in hunting abilities, and flying experience. When a bird of prey is injured in the wild and is in need of rehabilitation, particularly if the trauma happened when they were young and before they were able to learn how to survive from their parents, then falconry is a good surrogate to teach a bird of prey how to thrive in the wild again.
4. McGough Is Pursuing A Pilot License
McGough’s father is a former Air Force stealth pilot and he is the one who brought her to Mongolia, 60 Minutes reported.
According to her biography, she not only loves to watch eagles fly, she also loves to fly herself; she is “an avid skydiver.” In her interview with Inside Hook, she said she enjoys challenging herself:
I always try to accomplish goals that scare me, which is never easy in the moment, but keeps life interesting. I’m a licensed skydiver and have finished an Ironman triathlon. I’m currently pursuing my private pilot’s license; flight in all its forms is so enthralling to me.
5. McGough Honors Animals with Tattoos
McGough has multiple tattoos all over her body, each one celebrating a different animal and many of the ones below have been credited to Curtis Burgess, a tattoo artist out of Colorado who specializes in animal tattoos. A large eagle is shown draping her back in the Instagram post above. McGough also has a tattoo of a jackrabbit on her thigh, presumably running from the eagle swooping toward it.
McGough has the tattoo of a fox and in a post showing off the artwork, she noted that many ancient members of the ancient hunting cultures had tattoos, such as the 2,500-year-old ‘Siberian Princess,’ who had a reindeer on her arm.
The snow leopard is part of a sleeve she is doing and it took six hours, according to her Instagram post.
She also has a kestrel, a small falcon species, on her stomach, shown here: